Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Post Eight: Top Five "what-ifs"

This week’s question asks about my top 5 “What-ifs” at the WC.  So, without further ado:

1.     A writer who cries – one of two things might happen.  I might start crying myself, or I might get so flustered that I lose the ability to speak.  I do not want to have to handle anyone’s nervous breakdown, so I hope that no one ever bursts out in tears in a session!

2.     The writer won’t listen – if the writer fails to see the point in any suggestions I make because they ‘like’ what they have already, even if it’s flawed, then it makes me feel I have ‘failed’ as the tutor.  Even though I tried and they didn’t want to listen, the lack of improvement would make me feel like a failure.

3.     The writer is not cooperating – again, this is a situation which would make me feel like a failure.  Regardless of why the writer won’t cooperate, if nothing gets done due to their sullenness, I will feel that I have failed them.

4.     The writer has a learning disability – I have absolutely no idea what it's like to have a LD, so it would be hard for me to creatively work around the student's limitations and figure out a way to help them.

5.     The writer asks about a grade – second only to crying, this is the situation which would make me the most uncomfortable.  I'm not their teacher and this isn’t something I can do, yet students can be pretty desperately demanding about this.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Post Seven: Online Conferencing and WAC

Again, two topics on this week's post. First - online conferencing:  what are some purposes for responding in writing to student essays, and what are some strategies?

Responding to a student essay via the written word can be done for many reasons.  First, and this is especially good in situations where face-to-face doesn't occur, it can be a way to build a relationship with the writer - your written words have to let them know that there is a person and a face behind the comments, not just a writing mechanics automaton.  Thus, word choice and tone play a big role here; more on that later.

A written response can also give tutors the role of disciplinary experts as they provide very specific, very detailed feedback about the student's essay.  This specific feedback can help impart the specialized knowledge necessary to succeed in that particular discipline.

Finally, and most importantly, as Longman notes:  "your response should enable the writer to learn"(162).  Very important statement here! Note the word choice:  enable students to LEARN.  Written responses are not meant to make tutors into editors and spell checkers.  Written responses should aid in learning.

Which brings us to the next question - what are some strategies for doing this?  Well, as mentioned before, tone is important.  The response should feel personal, like the tutor genuinely sat down and took time to read and think about the paper - not like the tutor just scribbled the same few random comments on a giant stack of papers and called it a day.  This can be as simple as addressing the writer by name in a summary response at the end of the essay:  "John, I really like where you're going with this draft. Now, ...." or "Jane, you have some strong sections in this.  Let's try to build on...."

These two examples also demonstrate the next strategy: start with something positive! No one wants to feel like they're a hopeless case.  If tutors can pick out one or two things the student does well, they will be more willing to accept that some things need work and genuinely work to improve those sections.  Since they know that they have done something right in some part of the paper, they know they can make the rest work too.

Another thing that can make writers feel like they're a lost cause is a paper that looks as though a red pen just vomited all over it.  It discourages writers to see a draft they've worked hard on covered in red, and it can also feel overwhelming: like they have so much to fix that they shouldn't even bother to start.  So, a third strategy is to stop at three. If tutors can pick out 3 things for writers to work on - for example, organization, backing up claims/points with examples from the text, and citing sources correctly - then the paper will seem much more manageable.  Making three improvements well is much more effective than making 18 improvements very poorly.

As with a face-to-face session, another strategy for responding in writing is to keep higher-order concerns in mind first.  If the organization is totally illogical, then making sure none of the sentences are comma splices doesn't really make sense - so noting one of the three concerns as organization, rather than comma usage, is more effective.

Responding as a reader is also an effective strategy.  Noting comments in the margin, like "What do you mean here?" "Can you give us more?" "Nice example" or "Transition feels a bit rocky", can be very helpful.  Tutors' reactions as readers often help to pinpoint areas that need a little more refinement.

Finally, using a tape recorder or other technology is an effective strategy when responding in writing to student essays.  Tutors can tape-record their reactions as they read the paper out loud so that students can hear what sounds awkward and where tutors felt that more detail was needed, the explanation was good, the sentence was unclear, or so forth.  Computer technology can be a great tool as well:  using the comment feature to make notes in the margins, highlighting areas where citation needs to be re-checked, using a different font or font color to embed comments, or turning on track changes.

With these purposes and strategies for online conferencing laid out, let's also look at the WAC:  what is it, what is its relationship with the writing center, and what are some ways a WAC may affect the operation of the writing center?

WAC simply stands for writing across the curriculum:  the idea that every major and every profession has the need to communicate ideas in written form, and therefore every student needs to be able write and think like professionals in their chosen discipline.  It has grown out of an increasing recognition that writing is essential to learning.

WAC has a varied relationship with the writing center.  There are essentially two schools of thought: that tutors should be "specialists" and matched with students in their area of expertise, or that tutors should be "generalists" and able to work with students of any major.  Some people worry that specialist tutors, because of their expert knowledge, will overpower students and act more like expert teachers; others worry that generalist tutors are too limited and will not be able to help students figure out the specialized technical areas in which they are often seeking assistance.  However, others argue that specialist tutors are not more likely than any other tutor to steamroller over a student, and that generalist tutors actually become better tutors by pushing themselves to help students in disciplines outside their comfort area.  Thus, there are valid arguments on both sides.

WAC can either work in conjunction with the writing center or as its own sort of entity.  Generalist tutors from the writing center may help students in all majors, or specific majors may establish their own 'help centers' with specialized tutors who do have the very technical knowledge specific to that field.  Both strategies can be effective; the main point of importance is to recognize that, whether working as a generalist in a writing center or a specialist in a WAC center, the ultimate goal is to facilitate student learning and understanding.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Post Six: WC History and Theory

Some ruminations on today's theme: where do writing centers come from, what is their history, and what is writing center theory?

A lot of people seem to think that writing centers are a fairly recent phenomenon, stemming from the huge uptick of undergraduates in the 1970's.  However, WCs have actually been around since the early 1900s, although their purpose has shifted over the years.

According to Longman, "As early as 1895, two influential English faculty members, John Franklin Genung of Amherst College and Fred Newton Scott of the University of Michigan, described the importance of laboratory methods in the teaching of writing...The student-teacher conference that we take for granted in our schools has a long history and is a strong influence in the development of stand-alone writing centers." (pg 142)

So originally, the WC was viewed as a sort of 'writing laboratory' where people could get help fixing their atrocious grammar and punctuation skills:  a remedial center for the hopeless causes.  Some people even called for the abolishment of freshman composition classes, proposing that they ought to be replaced by this laboratory/conference/tutorial method.  The popularity of WCs then rose and fell in waves (they rose in prominence in the 1930s, only to fall out of favor in the 50s and 60s as lesser-prepared students were shunted off to junior college until they were ready for a four-year institution) until the aforementioned influx of students in the 70s.

Once WCs again became hugely popular in the 1970s, the shift to a focus on composition rather than grammatical elements began.  Again, WCs were called upon to help less-prepared students, but now the WC was expected to help the student understand how to write - not how to punctuate.  Since the 1970s, the WC field has seen tremendous growth and is making strides towards having a professional status of its own.

Along with all of the growth in WC literature and study has come an increase in WC theory.  While there are many theories out there, a few of the basics:

1) the three-part model, theorized by a variety of people (under a variety of names):
     a) the cognitive/storehouse method proposes that knowledge of the proper way to communicate is passed from the teacher/expert to the student/novice learner
     b) the literary/garret method proposes that writers use their interior knowledge as they work alone in a quest for truth
     c)  the social/parlor method proposes that writers work in collaboration with others in the larger literary community (typically seen as the most effective method for writing centers due to its natural conversation about writing between the tutor and student)

2) the nondirective or minimalist method states that tutors should try to be just that: nondirective and minimalist.  Instead of cramming information down students' throats, tutors should try to help them figure out what they want to do - not what the tutor would do.

3) Stephen North's proposal that "writing centers should produce better writers, not better writing".  Basically, this agrees that WCs should focus on how to write, not on how to punctuate.  While this may disappoint students who come in looking for a quick fix for their paper, not a lasting fix for themselves, if practiced over time should help students turn out higher-quality work in the long run.

Although these theories, as well as other similar ones, have all been proposed as the 'best' way to approach working in the writing center, we do need to keep in mind that they are just that: theories.  Since writing centers involve real people dealing with other real people, theories may often need to be tweaked, modified, or temporarily abandoned altogether in light of the situation we actually handling.  However, that does not mean that theories can't at least provide a useful guideline as we work towards our ultimate "ideal" of what a WC session should be.